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Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was an exceptional woman in an age rich in strong personalities. Best known for her opera The Wreckers, her music, long neglected, is gradually winning new friends. A feminist, intrepid traveller and sportswoman, she wrote nine volumes of autobiography, vividly recounting a life packed with incident.
Aged nineteen, in the face of fierce opposition from her father, she went to Germany to study and ‘plunged joyfully into the dear old sea of German music which surged about the feet of Brahms’, befriending Schumann’s widow, Clara, and the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg and his wife, Lisl, the first of many women to whom Ethel was passionately attached.
Her writings, abridged by Ronald Crichton, and including a catalogue of her music, are full of brilliant portraits – Brahms, Mahler, Beecham, Emmeline Pankhurst and Queen Victoria – all described in uncompromising detail. Numerous anecdotes range from hurling a brick through a cabinet minister’s window, resulting in two months in Holloway prison – where she was observed, leaning through the bars, conducting her March of the Women with a toothbrush – to an Egyptian visit where she sought out a hermaphrodite in order to make an anatomical examination.
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